Saturday, February 15, 2014

Drinking the Kool-Aid

The cheering and whistle-blowing followers of Suthep Thaugsuban in Bangkok could not be more unlike the Americans who moved to Guyana in the 1970s to start a commune called Jonestown. Their leader was a charismatic preacher who promoted racial integration at his Peoples Temple in San Francisco.  His goal had been to use Christianity to spread the message of socialism and he was highly regarded by people of influence in the city and state of California.  But he was also a paranoid drug addict.  When he felt threatened by exposure in the media, he took his entire community of followers to Guyana where they established what Jones described as a "socialist paradise" and "sanctuary" at a remote place he named Jonestown.

What happened on Nov. 18, 1978, is a major event in 20th century history.  When a U.S. congressman flew down on a fact-finding visit, accompanied by defectors from Jonestown who said their children had been taken from them by Jones, the entire community committed mass suicide.  Over 900 people, including some 300 children, drank cyanide mixed with grape Kool-Aid and died.  The congressman and several others were killed by gunmen sent after them by Jones, and the leader himself died from a gunshot would to the head.  He told his willing followers that death is "just stepping over into another plane" and that it's "a friend." The phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" has become a well-known metaphor that "refers to a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination," according to Wikipedia.

I use this metaphor to describe the followers of Suthep who have been demonstrating against the Thai government on the streets of Bangkok for two months because I think that, like the innocent followers of Jim Jones, they are gripped by a delusion that flies in the face of reality and they are unable to contemplate the unintended effects of their actions.  The men, women and children of Jonestown, an idealistic multi-racial group of people from San Francisco, had become seduced by the paranoid fantasies of their leader who believed the American government was out to get them (their children would be tortured if captured he told the parents).

Many segments of the population in Thailand have been suffering from a form of mass hysteria over the Shinawatra family for the last eight years.  Thaksin Shinawatra was elected prime minister in 2001 but his government was overturned by a military coup in 2006.  A successful business tycoon, his political party reached out to voters in rural areas who had been ignored by the ruling coalitions in Bangkok since the constitutional monarchy was established in 1932.  This success, as well as questionable financial dealings and an autocratic style of governing that involved censorship and human rights abuses, was deeply disturbing to the traditional centers of power in Thailand.  But although he was sent into exile and the constitution was rewritten by the military to block future executive overreach, his popularity continued to win elections, even after judicial "coups" had thrown two more Thaksin-allied prime ministers out of office.  In the 2011 election his sister Yingluck overwhelming defeated the Democrats, a party that came to power through back-room deals, led by Abhisit Vejjajiv and his deputy prime minister, Suthep.

Street mobs against Thaksin in 2006 had preceded the coup.  Last June people took to the streets in Bangkok again, this time wearing "V for Vendetta" masks from the movie of the same name about a future anarchist revolutionary who took the identity of Guy Fawkes, the British hero who attempted to kill King James I (the mask was more pictorial than reflecting the protesters sentiments about monarchy...loving the King was one of the reasons why they hated Thaksin).  Then at the end of the year his sister made a few false steps that stoked the latent hysteria about her brother.  The opposition party withdrew from Parliament, forcing her to call a new election.  Suthep also resigned from the Democratic party and became the mob's spokesman.  At its peak, an estimated 200,000 people took to the streets, now demanding the "eradication of the Thaksin regime."  Despite the fact that Yingluck had received a significant majority of the votes in 2011, Suthep called for nothing less than her removal and "reform before election," a slogan without any details.

The hatred I hear on the streets for Thaksin these days is difficult to fathom. He was gone by the time I arrived in the fall of 2007.  Most of what I know of him comes from a very detailed biography, Thaksin, by the British writer Chris Baker and his wife Pasuk Pongpaichit, an academic economist, as well as from their excellent History of Thailand. Thaksin came from a wealthy Thai-Chinese family in Chiang Mai and made a fortune cornering the cell phone service market based on exclusive leases.  He was no more corrupt than other politicians, but avoided oversight when he became PM.  His was the first mass-based political party in Thailand and uniquely successful.  His enemies envied his success, his wealth, and his popularity, and accused him of undermining Thailand's "democracy with the King as head of state."  Since his exile, he has been accused of running Thailand by proxy, and there is truth in this charge with his sister currently the head of state.

Thailand's protesters like to have fun (sanuk in Thai).  Demonstrations are dense with theatrical aspects: slogans, flags and tokens to show their allegiance, like pictures of the King, the Thai flag colors used for various patriotic bling, and the ever-present whistles (for "whistle blowers" who wish to "shut down Bangkok" before they "restart Thailand").  Since the non-stop rallies began on January 13, there have been continual speeches and entertainment from the various stages that block major intersections in central Bangkok.  In the beginning, Suthep claimed it would be only a few days before Yingluck would resign to join her brother in exile in Dubai.  The election, boycotted by the Democrats, has come and gone with candidate registration and polling blocked by protesters.  The various agencies and courts set up by the military constitution in 2007 are deliberating various charges against the government and members of Yingluck's Pheu Thai party.  Participation by the largely middle class followers of Suthep has flagged during the hot days but surged in the evenings when those attending forgo entertainment on TV for the sanuk protest rallies.

In trying to understand what seems to me to be irrational hatred of and mass hysteria against Thaksin, the closer I could come to it was McCarthyism in America in the first half of the 1950s. During the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy made outrageous claims about the existence of Communists in government.  He was widely followed and applauded by those fearful of the "red menace." People were looking for "Reds" under their bed!  McCarthyism, according to Wikipedia, has come to be seen as the practice of "making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence."  The rhetoric against Thaksin from Suthep and his minions revolves around "corruption" and the need for "reform," but these words are left without much detail.  Winning elections has meant "a dictatorship of the majority," and the accusation that the only way Thaksin's candidates like his sister can win elections is through "vote buying," a charge that falls apart under analysis.  Yingluck's enemies resort to gender abuse and call her "slut," "bitch" and worse.  The arguments from anti-government protesters, who reveal a distaste for democracy when they can't win elections (the Democrats last success was in 1992), are passionate and designed to appeal to emotions rather than critical analysis.

It's difficult if not impossible to argue with Thaksin haters.  They demonize their enemy by putting him in a class with Hitler and Satan.  Everything he touches or influences, like his sister, is soiled.  The fact that Suthep's political career has been marked by corruption charges is irrelevant.  Thaksin's considerable rural power base is dismissed and the voters ridiculed as uneducated and interested only in his money and populist health and economic policies.  Most of all, the followers of Suthep seem blind to the consequences of removing an elected government from power.  What will the people who elected Yingluck do?

I've already overreacted to the political situation in my adopted country, twice.  Before the "Shutdown Bangkok" campaign began, I stocked up on water which was in short supply during the floods two years ago.  But Bangkok absorbed the protests with little immediate effect.  Then on the day of the elections, like many others I expected widespread violence as protesters attempted to prevent voting.  For the most part, that didn't happen.  Now that the economy is in free fall, the peak tourist season has been terminally disrupted, and many government offices are operating out of borrowed locations because ministries have been shut and workers turned away, it almost seems like a normal way of life.  The fireworks during Chinese New Year set a few nerves on edge.  The worst that is contemplated now is civil war with Thailand splitting in two and Yingluck's government moving to Chiang Mai.  Of course this sounds alarmist.  Thais are known for their smiling faces, even when everything is going wrong.  Surely nothing this drastic could ever happen?

Yesterday the government made a feeble attempt to take back some of the locations occupied by Suthep's mob.  At the first sign of possible violence, the police withdrew.  It's possible the military, no fan of Thaksin, is protecting the protesters until the courts can do their dirty work.  Some believed it was a way to discourage people from attending Suthep's "love fest" on Valentine's day.  But I went to one of the three major rally sites last night and it was packed from people from what looked like all walks of life in Bangkok, if not Thailand.  These haters of Thaksin and followers of Suthep's have drink the Kool-Aid.  No election or even a military coup will reverse their conditioning against the exiled PM's detested "regime."  There is simply no way forward at the moment that will preserve the unity of Thailand.  The gulf is just too wide.  Am I being alarmist?  I hope so!

Tee shirt sellers and other vendors are happy with the protests

No comments: